Fear of Internet Predators Largely Unfounded

Does this really come as a surprise?

"There's been some overreaction to the new technology, especially when it comes to the danger that strangers represent," said Janis Wolak, a sociologist at the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

"Actually, Internet-related sex crimes are a pretty small proportion of sex crimes that adolescents suffer," Wolak added, based on three nationwide surveys conducted by the center.

[...]

In an article titled "Online 'Predators' and Their Victims," which appears Tuesday in American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychological Association, Wolak and co-researchers examined several fears that they concluded are myths:

  • Internet predators are driving up child sex crime rates.

    Finding: Sex assaults on teens fell 52 percent from 1993 to 2005, according to the Justice Department's National Crime Victimization Survey, the best measure of U.S. crime trends. "The Internet may not be as risky as a lot of other things that parents do without concern, such as driving kids to the mall and leaving them there for two hours," Wolak said.

  • Internet predators are pedophiles.

    Finding: Internet predators don't hit on the prepubescent children whom pedophiles target. They target adolescents, who have more access to computers, more privacy and more interest in sex and romance, Wolak's team determined from interviews with investigators.

  • Internet predators represent a new dimension of child sexual abuse.

    Finding: The means of communication is new, according to Wolak, but most Internet-linked offenses are essentially statutory rape: nonforcible sex crimes against minors too young to consent to sexual relationships with adults.

  • Internet predators trick or abduct their victims.

    Finding: Most victims meet online offenders face-to-face and go to those meetings expecting to engage in sex. Nearly three-quarters have sex with partners they met on the Internet more than once.

  • Internet predators meet their victims by posing online as other teens.

    Finding: Only 5 percent of predators did that, according to the survey of investigators.

  • Online interactions with strangers are risky.

    Finding: Many teens interact online all the time with people they don't know. What's risky, according to Wolak, is giving out names, phone numbers and pictures to strangers and talking online with them about sex.

  • Internet predators go after any child.

    Finding: Usually their targets are adolescent girls or adolescent boys of uncertain sexual orientation, according to Wolak. Youths with histories of sexual abuse, sexual orientation concerns and patterns of off- and online risk-taking are especially at risk.

In January, I said this:

...there isn't really any problem with child predators -- just a tiny handful of highly publicized stories -- on MySpace. It's just security theater against a movie-plot threat. But we humans have a well-established cognitive bias that overestimates threats against our children, so it all makes sense.

EDITED TO ADD (3/7): A good essay.

Posted on February 26, 2008 at 6:30 AM • 42 Comments

Comments

DaveFebruary 26, 2008 7:54 AM

The original report comes from University of NH, here's the quote I find most interesting:

"For example, in spite of public concern, the authors found that adolescents' use of popular social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook do not appear to increase their risk of being victimized by online predators. Rather, it is risky online interactions such as talking online about sex to unknown people that increases vulnerability, according to the researchers."

This is the same logic as 'guns don't kill people, people kill people'. That is logically correct, but I wouldn't let my kid play with a gun either.

BobFebruary 26, 2008 8:01 AM

"It's just security theater against a movie-plot threat."

I thought a movie-plot threat was a very unlikely hypothetical threat; one that never occurs. So, for example, an attack on tall city buildings using planes happened only once, but it is not a movie-plot threat; it did happen and it could happen again.

Some kids are abused by predators they meet online. So even if this occurs less than other threats, it is not security theater and a movie plot threat. It does happen.

Also, the study overlooks the type of threat where a predator looks for a woman with young kids, meeting and dating her, but with the aim of abusing the kids. This can affect kids who are much younger than those exposed to the other type of threat (that of being convinced to meet with a predator posing as a teen).

Michael RichardsonFebruary 26, 2008 8:04 AM

@Internet predators meet their victims by posing online as other teens.

If I was a 16 year old guy who wanted to meet girls my age online, I know what I'd do: pretend to be a 20 year old guy!

I think that the incidence of kids pretending to be adults online is far more common than adults pretending to be kids. (cf: the girl who pretended to be a record exec)

ZaD MoFoFebruary 26, 2008 8:47 AM

@ "I think that the incidence of kids pretending to be adults online is far more common than adults pretending to be kids."

Also, it is interesting to note how many teenagers are able to make an informed choice the day they reach the legal age of consens...

AnonymousFebruary 26, 2008 8:54 AM

@Dave

"This is the same logic as 'guns don't kill people, people kill people'. That is logically correct, but I wouldn't let my kid play with a gun either."

If you accept the premise, then the conclusion isn't necessarily forbidding your children playing with guns, but certainly forbidding them from playing with other people. Or, to take the full context, playing with "unknown" people.

Surely you must have told your kids to avoid interactions with strangers.

DaveFebruary 26, 2008 8:55 AM

I'm beginning to get the feeling that the "I told you so"-s that Bruce gets out of his blog are pretty damned satisfying for him.

stacyFebruary 26, 2008 8:56 AM

@Dave, I think you are over simplifying things. A few things stood out in what Bruce quoted above:

"Finding: The means of communication is new, according to Wolak, but most Internet-linked offenses are essentially statutory rape"

"Finding: Most victims meet online offenders face-to-face and go to those meetings expecting to engage in sex. Nearly three-quarters have sex with partners they met on the Internet more than once."

"Finding: Usually their targets are [...] [y]ouths with [...] patterns of off- and online risk-taking"

To me, that paints a picture of adolescents who would have been in the same situation with or without the Internet. The Internet might have provided opportunity to some adolescents who would not otherwise have had that opportunity, but the Internet is not a major contributing factor to the issue of "underage sex".

AnonymousFebruary 26, 2008 9:03 AM

@Bob

"I thought a movie-plot threat was a very unlikely hypothetical threat; one that never occurs."

Well, I guess you thought wrong then.

A movie plot is a the Rube Goldberg model of a terrorist.

A glorified conspiracy theory.

A means to scare the crap out of the credulous, to extract more taxes from them on the premise you can save them from the invisible space alien attack at 3am on the morning after the Superbowl.

timFebruary 26, 2008 9:08 AM

"This is the same logic as 'guns don't kill people, people kill people'. That is logically correct, but I wouldn't let my kid play with a gun either."

I wouldn't let my kid play with a gun either. I'd sit down with them, teach them what a gun is, get them training lessons, go to the shooting range, and properly supervise them. In other words how to properly and not properly use the tool. So tell me - what is so hard about that?

stacyFebruary 26, 2008 9:10 AM

@Anonymous

"Surely you must have told your kids to avoid interactions with strangers."

Actually, I have tried to teach my children to have a healthy scepticism and suspicion of peoples motives, not to blindly fear strangers. Every time I hear someone say "you shouldn't talk to strangers" I think of the story of the boy who got lost at a scout camp and spent four days actively avoiding the people who were looking for him because they were strangers.

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/06/23/...

DanFebruary 26, 2008 9:30 AM

I come here expecting to read worthwhile comments on security. Sadly, most of the time all I see is "security theatre", "movie plot threat", "I said this before...".

Like all other forms of media, I guess what gets more of a reaction is best to print.

AnonymousFebruary 26, 2008 9:34 AM

@stacy

"I think of the story of the boy who got lost at a scout camp and spent four days actively avoiding the people who were looking for him because they were strangers."

Nothing new. This is so common that SAR people are trained to be aware of this effect, not expect the searchee to be awaiting rescue with open arms.

Probably little can be done about it either, as this it is likely evolution in action: in times past people who trusted those who are targeting them ended up dead.

WillDeedFebruary 26, 2008 9:34 AM

I like how the article is called "Online 'Predators' and Their Victims"...

mmm... FUDlicious

CalebFebruary 26, 2008 9:55 AM

I feel a key factor in this is how involved parents are in their children's online activities (or other aspects of their life). I think sometimes parents forget that there's a reason why children/minors aren't considered adults. They simply lack the mental, behavioral, and emotional maturity to be involved in the adult arena.

I can teach my son how dangerous guns are, but that doesn't mean I'm going to leave him unsupervised with one. Likewise, we can teach our children about the various threats out there (eg: online threats), but unless we follow through with open communication and involvement in their lives they are bound to make mistakes simply due to their lack of maturity.

That doesn't mean that you have to monitor all of their online activity. However, simply being involved and making their online activity part of the things you discuss with them on a regular basis is enough.

I grew up constantly hooked up to a modem ever since we got one. My father became involved by showing me how to dial into various BBS's and other online resources. He clearly communicated to me how there would be dangerous content and people I would encounter and told me the various do's and dont's. He then would just regularly 'check in' and show genuine interest in what I had come across online.

Another factor is also giving children/adolescents private access to the internet. I personally feel that is a bad idea. I think many of the dangers online can be avoided simply by the physical placement of the computer(s) which has access to the internet. If computers are in an open/public space in the home children (and adults) are less likely to engage in questionable behavior.

Just my $0.02 from my own experiences.

Robert AccetturaFebruary 26, 2008 10:42 AM

I wonder how the Internet compares to other places with high perceived risk:

- schools
- religious organizations
- community organizations (boy scouts, athletic leagues, etc.)

I'd bet it ranks relatively low. Considering there's more distance with online communication (harder to make virtual become physical because you have to meet in real life) in comparison to situations that have a physical presence from the beginning.

My theory is all 3 are more likely places of abuse than an Internet origin. Unless of course you count each one who involves the Internet in any way (teacher who emailed a student) under "Internet" in which case it would be grossly disproportionate.

Patrick CahalanFebruary 26, 2008 11:55 AM

I've always thought that the long-accepted (at least by general media) claim that "one in five children on the Internet has been approached by a predator" was bunk.

Nice to see that someone is actually finally approaching the topic with some rigor and providing details that are useful...

Nomen PublicusFebruary 26, 2008 12:08 PM

As always, knowledge beats ignorance. A child that has been protected against the world has no techniques to use to be safe when eventually they have to venture out.

Teaching a child how to behave when approached and where to go for help will better protect him/her than a thousand attempts to restrict access to or censor the internet.

Nicholas JordanFebruary 26, 2008 1:11 PM

@They simply lack the mental, behavioral, and emotional maturity to be involved in the adult arena.

I counter. I scored 131 on Stanford-Binet in high-school and routinely score 98th %tile on Scheffe and ASVAB. To liven things up a little bit: hpgvdlzpvstfmg.

As a youngster, in Kansas, I mentioned to my parents on the way home from ( details dropped to avoid firefights ). Before making this revalation I engaged a very sophisticated internal-mental weighing of the risks of reporting v risks of not reporting which far exceeds the insight capacity of most adults I meet today. A few days later, upon being directed to a what I knew to be a 'counsellor's office' that had been selected so that I could speak freely to what was clearly an intelligent person informed on the facts of what they were about to delve into, I was presented with an extended 'get to know the person you are talking to' that had begun to wear me down. I challenged the operator of the session: "Can you tell me what this is all about ?" The drivel continued. Because the interviewer had attianed my trust that I could speak freely, I rasied the heat. With some ( intellectual equivalent of constipaton on the part of the interviewer ) I was able to determine what the interviewer wanted to know. I set up an inescapable barbed wire fence around the fact that I had made an informed decision that a risk-analysis had a three-way balance: [ risk to offenders reputataion V risk that the counsellor would be full of it V risk presented by the offender ] { nothing of consequence had happened }

I will never forget that moment, the interviewer could not grasp that at that age ( middle of elementary school ) that I could make such an elevated risk analysis. I still burn today over that. At about the same time, a television interviewer asked me an unrehearsed question on live-air. I told him he did not want to know. He asked a second time, I re-iterated and added that we were on live camera and it would neiter be retractable nor repariable. He pushed it, and as of about ten seconds later I would never have to listen to my second or third grade teacher try to feed me full of horseshit about my parent's alcoholisim.

Never - but I still wrestle with the problem, in many forms and slipshod mirrors. Consider the following problem:

@Transport minister Tetsuzo Fuyushiba criticized the Maritime Self-Defense Force for questioning an officer in charge of navigating the Aegis destroyer Atago without contacting the Japan Coast Guard, which had started its investigation into an accident involving the warship.

@http://www.asahi.com/english/Herald-asahi/TKY200802260473.html

It is well known that the greatest challenge in information security is the greymeat between the human ears. In the above cited case, there is a matter of authority in the transmission of information, a classical area of study in information security. The primary risk to juvenilles from predators ( we have established that the risk is not from pedophiles ) operates under the premise of preventing the minor's claim to earnings from advertising porno until statutory provisions for emancipation are achieved by getting married, joining the armed forces, or reaching the age of majority. Anarchist juvenilles not having escaped the pretense of protectorate will routinely archive vast respositories of non-commercial erotica, stolen music or doper literature of vastly better quality that commercial material to achieve acceptance in computer-literate groups, then in general have little or only passing interest in the material .... spending most of their time either in discussion groups using a linguistic their parents cannot understand or throwing out advertisers.

They protect this by pasting low-carb information about what britney spears did a few hours ago over the desktop to distract their parents. The idea that all juvenilles carte-blanche simply lack the mental, behavioral, and emotional maturity to make decisons about these matters is a buncha C.ompound R.edundant A.sinine P.rotocol.

Truth is stranger than fiction - I know, I saw it. Several of them approached me in my childhood. I would tell you some more but they are too deadly, controlling all information channels.

AnonymousFebruary 26, 2008 1:28 PM

Its not about just actual instances of predatory activity online --- what the articles exclude is the influence of online capabilities -- the predatory activity may not occur online or against an online subject, but it could induce or enboldn the person to act within their own local reach in order to post pictures, etc. Comments I've heard from LEOs involved in chasing down predators is that most had been isolated or contained until the intenet and social network boom -- nopw they have points of communication and idea exchanges that makes them a fair bit bolder and willing to act

EponymousFebruary 26, 2008 2:38 PM

I hate FUD as much as the next guy, but even though pedophile predation is not epidemic, adolescent predation really is.

I know a bunch of guys on a forum who recently got bored and started posing as underage girls in a lot of different chatrooms online. They were immediately bombarded by chat attempts from adult males, and were openly solicited for both cyber as well is IRL sexual activity hundreds of times. On numerous occasions. It was a good sample size and for the most part, there was little or no entrapment or enticement used.

I don't think solicitation of sexually developed and possibly sexually active minors is as big a deal as true pedophilia, but what it lacks in outrage it more than makes up for in prevalence.

GeorgeFebruary 26, 2008 2:40 PM

The fine folks who who make a living hunting and prosecuting "Internet sex predators" will surely dismiss this report as mere liberal claptrap. After all, as Don Quixote said to Dr. Carrasco, "Facts are the enemy of Truth."

AnonymousFebruary 26, 2008 3:30 PM

@Nicholas Jordan

Goodness I feel like an idiot for reading all that thinking "wtf is this guy on", only to get to the end and realize that it was posted by a spambot.

bobFebruary 26, 2008 4:24 PM

"This is the same logic as 'guns don't kill people, people kill people'. That is logically correct, but I wouldn't let my kid play with a gun either."

I wouldn't let an adult "play" with a gun either, not even if the adult was my kid, my sibling, my parent, etc. If the adult (or the kid) is aware of and follows gun safety, I have no problem. But PLAYING with guns is just stupid, just like playing with flammable liquids, flammable powders in enclosed containers (rhymes with "skype mom"), playing with power tools, playing with matches, playing with knives, and so on. Know what it is. Understand what it does. Treat it with the respect it deserves.

WillDeedFebruary 26, 2008 4:38 PM

@Nicholas Jordan

I think you should take the time today to stop and reflect on how incredibly brilliant you are and how everyone else pales in comparison.

It's clearly been a long time.

DuhFebruary 26, 2008 5:01 PM

I can't say I'm surprised with these results.

I've long believed that very few of these "children" are "lured" by adult into sex, but rather are actively seeking it out.

Hell, I have two execllent examples in my own family. My girlfriend's son at age 17 told me that he was actively trolling FaceBook for college guys. (Yes, he's gay.) His cousin, a girl a year younger in another state, already has a history of enticing older men. Both admitted to the same goal: a boyfriend who had a job and a car, who could buy them stuff (including alcohol). And from what the family has learned from both kids, this behavior is fairly common amongst their peers.

So scaremongering aside, the real issues here are: A) an over-sexualized and over-materialistic population of teens who start trying to act like adults — in all the wrong ways — as soon as they hit puberty; and B) a generation of parents who lack the time, energy, or just plain guts to be truly involved in the lives of their children.

Jack C LiptonFebruary 26, 2008 6:25 PM

My take-off on the "Dateline" series on the subject, the site isn't one you'll want to visit from work if the firewall records names:

http://www.asstr.org/~CupaSoup/...

Please note that there is no sex in this story... and has gotten a good number of laughs.

Russell CokerFebruary 26, 2008 6:42 PM

"But we humans have a well-established cognitive bias that overestimates threats against our children"

The poor state of car safety research seems to strongly suggest otherwise.

The "child" crash-test dummies are actually scaled down versions of the average man in the US as of the 70's. Cars are designed to protect men and tiny men in crashes - not children.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crash_test_dummy

The above URL has more information.

Lou DobbsFebruary 27, 2008 12:26 AM

Illegal immigrants are lurking in the darkest corners of the Internet, ready to attack innocent children. They should all be deported immediately, otherwise no kid will be safe in this country.

Matthew SkalaFebruary 27, 2008 8:09 AM

Russell Coker: there are other biases that cause people to underestimate risks, and many of them apply to your crash test dummy example. For instance, car crashes are a nearby, familiar risk associated with a voluntary action that also has significant benefits.

Anon E-mouseFebruary 27, 2008 4:51 PM

Myth: "Internet predators are pedophiles."

The interesting thing is that the primary reason this is a myth is probably because the average Joe out there cluelessly thinks that anybody who's attracted to underage kids (including teenagers) is a pedophile.

The average Joe would read that and say "How does targeting adolescents instead of prepubescent children make him not a pedophile?"

SandroFebruary 28, 2008 6:54 PM

Dave: "This is the same logic as 'guns don't kill people, people kill people'. That is logically correct, but I wouldn't let my kid play with a gun either."

What a perfect analogy. I don't let my kids "play" with guns either, but I sure as hell taught them how to be responsible with them.

AnonymousFebruary 29, 2008 10:16 AM

Makes me wonder how NBC Dateline's 'to cat a predator had such an abundance of predators. These researchers might have searching in all the wrong crevices!

A ParentMarch 3, 2008 12:59 AM

You all should really try having kids before commenting that internet security is not important for children. They are so precious and innocent. Even one occurance of predators preying on children is too much. It is NEVER the child's fault. That is like telling a woman who has been raped that it was her fault for dressing skankily. Maybe it is a bad idea. But CRIME is crime. Just because a door is unlocked does not make it right to break and enter. Just because someone ducked behind a shelf at the library does not make it right to steal their laptop. We need to protect our children. They are our most precious asset. And it is NEVER acceptable to let bad things happen to them jsut because they would happen to them anyways without the Internet.

John David GaltMarch 3, 2008 11:47 AM

The "information superhighway" metaphor may not be exact, but the Internet is very much like a freeway in this respect: it exists for a purpose, which must not be hindered just because some parents are unwilling to take responsibility for stopping their children from playing on it.

If you have kids, it is your job never to let them leave home unsupervised until they can do so safely. It is not the job of non-parents to make the entire outside world child-proof.

Nicholas JordanMarch 5, 2008 1:45 PM

@Anonymous at February 26, 2008 03:30 PM

Yes, too often I try to be entertaining and I have had similar critiques when I am not on wtf. I am not a spambot. I am a real, live human.

@WillDeed

I have watched myself in the mirror, I need to improve on clarity. The point of the post was the the supposed counsellor in third or fourth grade actually represented a greater risk than the actual risk. The true ground of that fear rests in the conveyance of information. The cite of the Transport minister Tetsuzo Fuyushiba seeks to model *emphaisis* HOW *end emphasis* the failure of the information channel functions. The remainder of the post attempts to work the issue and is the consequence of some serious work on the issue but drives me into a break trying to work the issue. It just cannot be accepted that a person of that age can make such deep analysis, thus the troop leader who did not burden me in any way nor cause me to fear for physical self-determinisim placed me in the position of having to go talk to a counsellor.

The reason that I had to go talk to the counsellor was because that I could not tell the troop leader gofuckyourself in front of twenty or thirty other ten year olds. It is a battle as old as the hills, and is modeled by the hourglass on some arachnids. It has a 56/44 balance.

User Izatwit could figure that out with enough work, in fact I have just told you how to break me.

kellyMarch 15, 2008 10:38 AM

Unfortunately, one such predator was recently sentenced in Kingston Ont - he only got 3 years even though he was involved in an international child porn ring. His targets were 10 to 14 yr old girls from around the world (not only the experimental adolescents already suggested) and he used pics taken from their webcam streams to blackmail them into more extreme acts (the CBC article suggests he tried to convince one child to perform bestiality).

My only problem, besides the light sentence, is:
where were the parents of the younger ones?

http://www.cbc.ca/canada/ottawa/story/2008/03/14/...

no, this is not rape - however, a good deal of damage was done to many young girls and young women.

MackenzieApril 9, 2008 10:46 AM

i really would like to know some more information you may know about internet predators. If you could send me some info on this that would be real appreciative.

Thank you for your time and corporation.

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